Pessimism as a worldview ( The World as Will and Representation – Part 1)

A Daunting Task

I have taken it upon myself to read the impressive work that is “World as Will and Representation” by Arthur Schopenhauer, and to relay here what I think of the pages therein. I must confess immediately my outright praise for Schopenhauer, although many could point out the inadequacies, in terms of character, that this genius of a man possessed. Indeed, Schopenhauer was a bitter and cynical man, whose diaries as he travelled Europe showed a depressing undertone, even when he was as young as 16. His father was a merchant and Schopenhauer was seeing his life dictated before him, against his own will, perhaps.

Nevertheless, while he was very young, he still managed to write beautifully, his diary serving as a testimony of what helped shape his philosophy of pessimism. He wrote often, and mostly negatively, about the cities he travelled to. He would detail things such as the architecture, the state of the streets, the Inn him and his father would be lodged in, the food served there, the state of the beds, how well he slept, what had transpired during the day… He saw the suffering of the poor at the expense of the wealthy like himself. Partied not too often, from my understanding, but saw much of the world. This would become integral, he will say in Aphorisms on Wisdom and Life, to shaping one’s philosophy: You must travel abroad, says Schopenhauer, to be impregnated with the many ways humans live.

It is probably in part what inspired him to go for Buddhism as part of his philosophical teachings and influences, and why he seemed to find most of western culture repulsive. I made a quick hook toward that in my Dissertation about Hatred. To be certain, however, Schopenhauer is not an easy read, in Will and Representation. The first volume, that I’ve come across so far, is particularly thick. Let us go into it in the following sections.

Schopenhauer has written a lot

Much of the preface of the first “book” in Will and Representation is written to ask the reader to arm themselves with very copious readings beforehand. Schopenhauer clearly has a high esteem of his own work, as he demands two things (in priority) out of his readers:

  1. One must have read and understood the Critique of Pure Reason, by Immanuel Kant (already quite an undertaking).
  2. One must have read Schopenhauer’s earlier works, namely “On the Fourfold Root of the Principle of Sufficient Reason“.

While I have read the Critique, I’ll admit to not having read the second book, as it is not easily found, even in libraries. I came upon this edition of the Will and Representation by sheer luck, as I’d been waiting for it to be returned for months. Understandably, whoever it had been lent to wanted to keep it for a moment. I cannot reproach them for that. This would immediately push back any uninitiated readers of philosophy, and Schopenhauer knows this. His demands reflect his expectations of who he wants to read his books, and he does not want just anyone to be reading them.

This book took him his entire life to write, and was published twice before he died. I’ll demand forgiveness to Schopenhauer for not having read the second work, but unfortunately… History has not remembered him as well as others that came before and after him. With that being said, the first few chapters erect a rather bemuddling theory that is meant to cast a shadow over Kant’s noumenal and phenomenal principles of Reason. Schopenhauer adds the notion of the “Will” as in what makes things “move” or “tick”, the “noumenal”; and the “Representation”, which is essentially the phenomenal, as in things as perceived from human minds or through the lens of “sufficient reason”.

If one has read Kant’s book, one will find that this does not add much of anything new and this has been reproached to Schopenhauer in the past, as he indeed does not appear to bring anything new or remarkably ground-breaking in this beginning segment. He also frequently refers the reader to earlier dissertations he’s written on the subject. Unless one owns all of Schopenhauer’s works, it is nigh impossible to follow through, unless you alreayd have a good epistemic grasp of the Critique’s theory of knowledge.

All in all, if you are capable of surviving through the first few pages, you could keep going.

I will cite for you an excerpt, so you may gauge just how capable you would be of reading this:

Since reason only ever reproduces in cognition what had
already been received by a different means, it does not actually extend
our cognition, but only gives it a different form: it allows what is already
cognized concretely and intuitively to be cognized abstractly and universally,
something incomparably more significant than a cursory glance at
this formulation suggests.

World as Will and Representation – Page 78, Cambridge Edition

This excessively technical jargon may seem rather intimidating at first, and I believe that is the intention. Schopenhauer is going in with a very thick framework, to basically hush away the unwary outsiders, so that only those “enlightened enough” remain to actually read what he wants to say. I would bet that this is Professor Schopenhauer talking and not Arthur himself. Having read other works from him, he normally does not appear to drone on for so long about technical terms.

I say the word “technical” because unless one is already aware of the body of works Schopenhauer demands we know before we read his work, you will be completely lost. The same thing would occur if I asked you to read a University-grade medical book. Far from being rocket science, the first book is still extraordinarily hard on the mind, and does have its share of spurious claims.

This is why savages and people without culture who are very little accustomed to
thinking, can perform many physical tasks (like fighting with animals or
shooting arrows at targets, etc.) with a sureness and swiftness that the
reflective European can never attain because his deliberateness leads to
vacillation and hesitation: he tries, for example, to find the right place or
time in the middle point between two false extremes; whereas the natural
man hits the target directly without reflecting on the wrong ways to go.

Ibid, Page 81.

As we can see above, Schopenhauer takes into account that intuition belongs primarily with the savages and people without culture, whereas thinking men have the “hindrance” of reason, casting doubt in their minds. It seems to make the syllogism that only one can exist and not the other. Admittedly, Schopenhauer had seen his share of black and white ideolog by then, and it is important to note that what he wrote here, he wrote when he was much younger than he was when he finished the entire book. These segments were left unchanged by himself, as he did not believe in re-editting himself, if only to add more data.

This conjecture however has to be given to him, as it merely points out as to why intuition (inductive logic) can sometimes be superior to critical thought (deductive logic). For example, when you play Dungeons and Dragons and one person thinks of an elaborate plan to unlock the door, using lockpicking and crafty schemes, and then the Barbarian simply knocks the door down, you can imagine that this Barbarian has been around before, and he knows that doors typically don’t fight back. Without having to think about consequences, he just bashes the door open.

So, in a way, Schopenhauer is sort of making a jab at geeks (or nerds), here, which I’ll imagine was probably a majority of the folks reading him back in the day.

In Closing

This’ll be the first of many (I hope) entries on Will and Representation. Schopenhauer being one of my favorite authors of philosophy, I intend to make as regular a report of my progress as I can, but as this book is rather large, I may not be able to post very often regarding it.

I do say on my “Welcome” page that I am a hopeful optimist, so it may seem odd for me to be reading the Godfather of Pessimism, right? Wrong, if one takes a second to look into Schopenhauer’s philosophy, you’ll find that he seeks optimism through pessimism. In a way, his philosophy is supposed to disenfranchise materialistic world-views while still living in a way that disregards any form of spiritual transcendance. When you fully adopt this mindset, you end up not really caring much about the things you normally care about, which are part of the struggle of the Wille Zum Leben (will-to-life) that Schopenhauer says imbues all life in the Universe.

It’s really not about justifying suicide or being pessimistic about everything, but rather not ascribing as much importance to things that (were you in someone else’s shoes, looking at yourself) would not appear to be that important.
When you let go of such wants, you start to feel a lot less pressure on your shoulders.

Kinda neat.


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